Israel Confronts Its Changing Demographics

8 MINS READApr 23, 2018 | 08:00 GMT
Israeli ultra-Orthodox Jewish men block a road as they take part in a demonstration against army conscription on March 8, 2018 in Jerusalem.

Israeli ultra-Orthodox Jewish men block a road as they take part in a demonstration against army conscription on March 8, 2018 in Jerusalem. In September 2017, the Israeli Supreme Court ruled that Haredi youth must serve in the country's military.

  • As Israel hits 70, its shifting demographic composition could strain the country's already contentious social situation, undermining its security.
  • High birth rates among the Israeli Bedouin and Haredi populations stand to have a more profound effect on the country's economic and diplomatic future than will the changing ratio of Arab Palestinians to Israeli Jews within the borders of the former British Mandate for Palestine.
  • Unless the two groups adapt their opposing cultural, educational and social outlooks, they could undermine Israel's economic and strategic strength.

Demographers have long warned that the balance between Israeli Jews and Arab Palestinians would define Israel's future. Now these warnings are bearing out. On March 25, the Israeli army presented Israel's parliament, the Knesset, with census data indicating that some 6.5 million to 6.7 million Arab Palestinians now live within the borders of the 1948 British-run mandate, a population equal to or larger than the area's Jewish population. The report revived concerns that the expanding Palestinian population would fundamentally change Israel's strategic situation, forcing it to either annex this population, allow a Palestinian state or develop an oppressive occupation regime that would result in its global diplomatic isolation.

The Big Picture

Israel has long worried about the impact its demographic balance has on its survival. But the external balance between Jews and Arabs poses much less of a strategic challenge, than the internal one between rapidly growing segments of Israeli society such as Israeli ultra-Orthodox Jews and Arab Bedouins. Unless Israel can convince these groups to adapt their behavior to the strategic needs of the 21st century, their rise poses potent challenges to both Israel's economic and diplomatic security.

But the Palestinians are not Israel's biggest demographic worry. The country, after all, has already split the population into two separate geographic areas, thereby preventing a unified state from rising to challenge it. The far greater concern for Israel's future is the rapid growth of the Bedouin and Orthodox Jewish Haredi populations, which together could substantially alter the country's demographic makeup, its economic position and its security strategy.

A Growing Problem

Though Israel once struggled with a small population, generous immigration policies have exceeded all expectations for boosting the number of the country's inhabitants. Since the turn of the 21st century, in fact, the rate of the population's expansion has posed a problem for Israel, at least from an economic standpoint. Gross domestic product growth has not broken 2 percent in nearly 20 years, and the country has the highest poverty rate of any Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development member. The growth of the Bedouin and the Haredi populations will only add to the strain on the economy.

The two groups make up the poorest and least educated segment of Israeli society, and they have the highest rate of unemployment. They are also Israel's fastest-growing populations; projections suggest that by 2059, the Haredi alone will account for one-quarter of all Israelis. Cultural values play a large role not only in the groups' high birthrates — Haredi women have an average of 6.5 children each, while Bedouin women have an average of six — but also in their socio-economic position. And in the long term, these values could undermine Israel's prosperity, as well as its traditional strategy of using technology to overcome its geographic weaknesses.

Israel's Growing Ultra-Orthodox Population

When Cultures Collide

For the Bedouins, conservative cultural norms discourage women from joining the workforce or staying in school. The Israeli educational system, moreover, has struggled to accommodate the group's nomadic lifestyle. As a result, Bedouin men are underskilled compared with the rest of the Israeli Arab population. Changing these circumstances would require forcing Israeli Bedouins to settle down in fixed locations and to reconsider the male-dominated culture that typically keeps girls out of school and confines women to the home. But as nearby countries such as the United Arab Emirates have learned with their own Bedouin populations, revising tradition is a decadeslong process.

Restructuring the Haredis' cultural values will be more challenging still. And because the Orthodox Jewish group is much larger — at 1.1 million people, compared with 200,000 among the Bedouins — changing their mores will be more important.

Fertility Rates

Like the Bedouins, the Haredi are underrepresented in schools and in the workforce. Women typically start having children at a young age, forgoing advanced education and training, and usually take low-paying jobs to support Haredi men, who prioritize Torah study over employment. The preference for Torah study also traditionally has kept young members of the Haredi community out of the military. When the population was smaller, in the low thousands, the Israeli government allowed Torah students to opt out of their compulsory military service. Today, however, the population is so large that the Israeli Defense Forces can't afford to lose the recruits. The Israeli Supreme Court ruled in September 2017 that Haredi youth must serve, provoking vehement protest from the Orthodox Jewish community.

And unlike the Israeli Bedouin, the Haredi have powerful representation in the Knesset, which can make or break the razor-thin coalitions in the country's government. Doling out special privileges to the Haredi to appease Israeli conservatives is a time-honored tradition in Israeli politics — one that makes it difficult for the government to change its policies to try to compel the group to adapt.

Despite the challenges, Israel has little choice but to work to reshape the behavior of its growing Bedouin and Haredi populations if it wants to keep its economy afloat. The International Monetary Fund has warned that if the two groups aren't better integrated into the Israeli economy, the country's labor force participation and productivity will drop more sharply and widen Israel's wealth gap.

Employment Levels in Israel

Tipping the Political Scales

In the meantime, the demographic shift will change the balance in Israeli politics. The growth of the Haredi population stands to tip the scales of power in Israel more permanently toward the right. The Haredi community today supports far-right parties like the Shas and the Jewish Home Party. As the religious group grows — and as secular Israelis' numbers dwindle — left-leaning parties such as the Zionist Union and Yesh Atid will have a harder time building governing coalitions in the coming decade. In addition, the growing pool of Haredi voters may siphon votes from center-left parties and give right-wing parties a larger share of seats in the Knesset, while entrenching the center-right in power.

The Knesset's Delicate Balance

The steady political transformation will bleed into diplomacy as well. Israel's center-right governments have strained to find reliable allies, and the more conservative their polices are, the more difficult it is for them to find international support. The trend is especially apparent in the United States, where cracks have started to form in the long-standing bipartisan consensus on Israel. Today, rank-and-file Republican politicians are among the country's only stalwarts. Members of the Democratic Party, meanwhile, have increasingly reported misgivings about Israel over the past few years: A 2017 poll by Pew found that only 27 percent of Democrats sympathized with Israel over the Palestinians — a 40-year low — despite their party's strong Jewish contingent. Because no other country can match the benefits of the U.S. alliance, the empowered Haredi will eventually have to confront American political attitudes if they are to keep the United States' support.

An Evolving View

In fact, the Haredi community is bound to become more diverse in its political and social opinions as its numbers increase. The more Haredi there are, the more likely the group is to break into new factions, especially as younger Haredi come of age and realize the challenges their values pose to their country. Facing new problems and new restrictions, young members of the Haredi community probably will have to adapt for the sake of stability and prosperity. The views of the older generations won't necessarily transfer to the younger ones.

This evolution is already evident in the current debate over Haredi conscription: Some Haredi increasingly support military service, while others oppose it. In September 2017, more than three-quarters of the Orthodox Jewish Home Party's members polled said they would oppose legislation to exempt Haredi youth from military service (though other Haredi parties, such as United Torah Judaism and Shas, supported the measure.) The situation resembles the political environment in Saudi Arabia, where older leaders are overcoming their diehard anti-Israel upbringing to forge a pragmatic relationship with the country, and young people find that the Palestinian question is less important to them.

Price of Tradition

The Israeli government will likely find ways to encourage these shifts in attitude among the Haredi. The Supreme Court's recent decision ending Haredi exemptions from military service is just the opening salvo in a state campaign to incentivize greater economic and military participation among the fast-growing community. Since the appointment procedure shields them from political pressure, Israeli judges are best poised to pare back the privileges that have made the Haredi such a challenge for the state.

In the next few decades, Israel will have to contend with a brewing demographic problem — albeit not the one it was expecting. More than the growth of the Palestinian population, the burgeoning Israeli Bedouin and Haredi communities will demand the country's attention. The demographic change underway will force Israel to try to better integrate its two fastest-growing populations into its economic and political strategy. Otherwise, they could put the country in economic peril and jeopardize its crucial relationship with the United States.

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